09/20/2012 5:07PM

Pennsylvania Derby: Alpha, Golden Ticket face off after Travers dead heat

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Barbara D. Livingston
Alpha (6) puts on a late surge and gets to the wire in time to finish in a Travers dead heat with Golden Ticket.

Unlike in 1874, when the two combatants who dead-heated for first in the Travers Stakes – Attila and Acrobat – staged a run-off the same day to decide the winner, there was no such exercise conducted this year.

Instead, Alpha and Golden Ticket – the two horses who dead-heated for first in last month’s 143rd edition of the Travers Stakes at Saratoga – will have a rematch in Saturday’s Grade 2, $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing. They will be joined in the starting gate by six other 3-year-olds, only one of whom has won a graded stakes.

Alpha and Golden Ticket figure to be the top two betting choices in the Pennsylvania Derby, a race that could be overshadowed by the Grade 1, $1 million Cotillion featuring the exciting 3-year-old filly Questing and last year’s 2-year-old filly champion, My Miss Aurelia.

Alpha was the 2-1 favorite in the Travers and looked defeated in midstretch as Golden Ticket, a 33-1 longshot, was spurting away under David Cohen. But Alpha, under Ramon Dominguez, was perhaps energized by a late-running Fast Falcon to his outside and managed to get his head down on the wire at the same time as Golden Ticket, making for a bit of history.

[PARX RACING: Get PPs for Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion]

The victory was the fourth stakes win of the year for Alpha, who in the winter won the Count Fleet and Withers at Aqueduct and who in July won the Jim Dandy.

The only real blemishes on Alpha’s record have come at Churchill Downs, where he finished 11th in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and 12th in this year’s Kentucky Derby, both by the identical 19 1/4-length margin.

“Alpha hasn’t won outside New York, but the only two races were at Churchill, so hopefully he just hates Churchill,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “He’s flying. He couldn’t be doing any better.”

McLaughlin has kept Alpha in Saratoga to train. Though Alpha was training on Saratoga’s main track, a dirt surface, leading up to the Travers, he has trained exclusively on the synthetic surface at the Godolphin training center. All of his works have been right-handed, which is the opposite way that the races in America are run or horses typically train.

“Racing in America, training in America, everything is left-handed,” McLaughlin said. “In my experience of 30 years on the racetrack, I’m going to say 90 percent of your issues on horses are left front, right hind. In thinking about it, we just felt if we could switch directions maybe it helps their issues out.”

McLaughlin said that Alpha doesn’t have any issues, but that training right-handed “is something different. It picks their head up.”

The Pennsylvania Derby does not appear to be loaded with speed, though Csaba, a front-running victor in an overnight stakes at Calder in July, is adding blinkers to his equipment.

“Obviously, Ramon knows him well, he can lay second, third, or we can be on the lead,” McLaughlin said. “It looks like if we break well, we will be forwardly placed, and we’ll see how the track is playing on the day.”

Golden Ticket was coming off a 13-week layoff when he ran in the Travers. His trainer, Ken McPeek, had entered Golden Ticket in two other races that didn’t fill, before deciding to take a swing at the Travers. McPeek said he took that gamble because the horse had trained so well at Saratoga, and he has continued to do so having stayed in upstate New York before shipping to Parx on Thursday.

“He’s done extremely well since the last race,” said McPeek, who planned to train Golden Ticket at Parx on Friday and school him in the paddock and gate. “He drank a bucket of water coming out of the Travers, and we think he can improve a notch off that race.”

Golden Ticket will break from post 6 under David Cohen.

Macho Macho enters the Travers off a victory in the Grade 2 West Virginia Derby, in which he outfinished Bourbon Courage, who came back to win the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs.

Macho Macho, trained by Steve Asmussen, will be ridden by Corey Nakatani from post 8.

Casual Trick, who had breathing issues during the winter and spring when he was non-competitive in graded stakes, has won two allowance races at Parx for trainer Nick Zito, a three-time winner of the Pennsylvania Derby.

Stephanoatsee, a half-brother to Shackleford, finished second to Alpha in the Count Fleet in January and was sidelined because of injury. He came off a seven-month layoff to win a first-level allowance at Delaware Park.

Handsome Mike, who returns to dirt after running fourth in the Grade 1 Secretariat on turf, and Junebugred, winner of the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn in January, complete the field.